That’s What Christmas Is All About, Charlie Brown

Photo of me, about age 4, on Christmas morning surrounded by gifts.
Yep, that’s me. Look at how happy I was, and not a gift card in the bunch.

Every Christmas season, I methodically make my way through a stack of holiday DVDs.  Tonight’s film is Miracle on 34th Street – the 1947 version — in which an eight-year-old Natalie Wood is completely captivating. (Unfortunately, the film is colorized. I’m a purist, and looked long and hard for black and white, but eventually had to admit defeat.)

I love the holidays. From just before Thanksgiving through December 26th, I’m all in, for all of it: Thanksgiving dinner with friends on Thursday, followed by Christmas tree buying and trimming that weekend. And while I am resolute in boycotting Black Friday, I otherwise enjoy holiday shopping and the challenge of finding a fitting gift for everyone on my list – ideally without having to ask for suggestions.

Christmas shopping can make otherwise reasonable people a little crazy. Whether it’s skipping Thanksgiving dinner to pitch a tent outside Best Buy, or trampling over salespeople at Wal-Mart – all for the love of the new Xbox One – there’s no question that we can lose perspective this time of year.

Thankfully, I can’t think of anyone, over age 15, who displays that kind of avarice and materialism. In fact, most adults I know lament how much STUFF they have already accumulated, and insist that they DON’T NEED ANOTHER THING. Yet they (and I) all want gifts to open on Christmas Eve/morning.

Enter the gift card. I am ambivalent about gift cards. They certainly make shopping for the-person-who-has-everything easier. But I can’t escape the feeling that they have diminished the fun of Christmas – the giving, and the receiving – just a little bit.

First off, gift cards are awfully quick to open, and the surprise is over in, like, 10 seconds. There’s no fumbling around tissue or packing noodles to figure out what’s inside the box. No holding it up to admire the workmanship, or show it to others. It’s all right there in an instant: gift card, Bed, Bath and Beyond, $50.

If you don’t pace yourself, Christmas gift opening can be completed in approximately four minutes.

Sally, from a Charlie Brown Christmas, starts her letter to SantaWhat’s more, the act of requesting gift cards is tricky. Do I like to receive them? Duh, YES! But I still can’t bring myself to proactively ask for them. It reminds me of the scene in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when little Sally dictates her letter to Santa:

“Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?”

I can’t shake the feeling that being prescriptive when requesting gift cards is a lot like asking for cash, right down to the preferred denominations. As a kid, that was a definite no-no.

Tonight on cable news, an author and “expert” on gift giving discussed what makes the perfect gift, and sought to dispel some common misconceptions. It seems it doesn’t matter if you give one big gift, or lots of little ones, provided the recipient gets something he/she wants. You can even buy the same gift for multiple people. As long as it’s a really good gift, no one will complain about your lack of creativity.

Yes, someone wrote a book about that – but I don’t think any of us really needs a book.

When someone gives you a bad gift — like the year my bearded father received a shaving cream machine — I suggest you follow the protocol you (hopefully) learned as a kid: acknowledge the generosity with a gracious thank you note, then stash that white elephant in the attic or give it to charity. You can also drop subtle hints, from time to time, about the kind of gifts you prefer. Try mentioning (but not shamelessly gushing about) how much you liked the gift of XYZ from Uncle Joe.

And don’t forget “wish lists” at online retailers like Amazon.com. Whether you use a Kindle, or prefer to consume books on paper, you’ll get something you want, and the gift giver will get the satisfaction of knowing he/she chose a gift rather than filled an order. It’s a win/win.

Despite your best gentle hinting and skill at listing your wishes, there are probably well-meaning people who love you but will always give you gifts you don’t want. No one knows why, but I doubt they are trying to annoy you, so don’t get mad: get gracious and… get directions to the nearest Goodwill truck.

If all else fails, try reminding yourself that yours is a very first-world problem. According to the non-profit “Feeding America”, one in six Americans (and one in five children) will go to bed hungry tonight. In the Philippines, hundreds of thousands are homeless thanks to November’s typhoon Haiyan. Sadly, I could keep listing.

I guarantee that instead of counting your gift cards, you’ll wind up counting your blessings. Like me, I’m sure you have many.

Merry Christmas.

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